Media Headliner: Five's 'iron lady' unveils her vision of the future

Bubbly, but single-minded, five's Lisa Opie is determined to get the station punching above its weight, Alasdair Reid writes.

If we didn't know any better, we might find it easy to assume Lisa Opie has a ruthless streak that verges on megalomania. She joined five almost a year ago - and she'd hardly been in the broadcaster's Covent Garden offices more than a few minutes before the body count began to rise.

The defenestrations (metaphorically speaking) have continued at a steady pace ever since, and October's events are arguably the most significant yet. At the start of the month, five's executive director of marketing, Jane Scott, left without another job to go to. Last week, Opie announced she was to manage the marketing function, adding this to her continuing programming responsibilities.

A number of rather mischievous observers were moved to speculate over who might be next. Just how twitchy should Opie's boss, five's chief executive, Jane Lighting, be feeling right now?

Not at all is the simple answer. Lighting and Opie, insiders say, if not quite joined at the hip are firm friends, long-standing colleagues going back to their Flextech days (Opie became the director of programming in 1998, Lighting became the managing director and her boss in 1999, moving to five in 2003), and close allies.

And it's Lighting who is undoubtedly steering this latest restructure, because it closely mirrors the way things were structured when they worked together at Flextech.

As Opie herself comments: "In a crowded marketplace, you need to be clear about your proposition and your brand, and that's not just about your advertising and your idents, it's also about your programmes and your whole on-air identity, too. Bringing the two together is the logical thing to do."

She's more or less convincing as she makes light of recent events, arguing that there's always a high turnover at the high-pressure end of the creative professions. And indeed, the former colleagues dismiss any suggestions that Opie has a tyrannical side.

The general consensus is that she's a delight to work with (or for). They describe her as "funny and bright" or "bubbly and exciting", and add that she has the beautifully modulated charismatic presence that you'd expect of someone who once made a decent living in the acting profession.

But still, the upheaval within five's programming department (and now on the marketing side) has, at best, been messy.

In October 2006, when Lighting brought Opie in to fill the new role of managing director of content, over the head of the existing director of programmes, Dan Chambers, Chambers quit instantly.

In the months that followed, a steady stream of his colleagues followed: the controller of factual programming, Justine Kershaw; Nick Thorogood, the controller of the digital offerings, five Life and five US; the controller of features and entertainment, Ben Frow; and the controller of special events and pop features, Sham Sandhu.

On the credit side, a new director of programmes, Jay Hunt, was poached from the BBC back in May. The ship has been steadied, and in the spring, Opie unveiled her new vision for five as a "bold, modern and broad" channel, able to appeal to a mainstream audience in the terrestrial space, but still able to act with the nimbleness of a niche digital player.

Still, Scott's departure could come as unwelcome news for five's incumbent agencies, VCCP on the creative side, and its media agency Vizeum. A review can now be expected somewhat sooner rather than later, surely. Not necessarily, Opie replies. "The arrangements have been successful, and I don't envisage a change in either our above-the-line arrangement or our adspend," she says.

And, she adds, five will have plenty to talk about next year - not least Neighbours, which Opie nicked from the BBC, and will move to five next spring. And indeed, there will be no better test case for the new Opie way of doing things. Granted, Neighbours is produced by Fremantle, which, similar to five, is owned by RTL, but the main reason Fremantle executives wanted to ditch the BBC was the feeling that their programme wasn't being showcased imaginatively enough or marketed coherently.

So, can Opie, in her expanded role, ensure that five punches above its weight? David Cuff, another former Flextech colleague, and now a digital broadcast consultant, certainly thinks so. "She's a great leader," he says. "She has 360-degree vision; she likes to get involved in all aspects of the business. In television, the programming content and the brand are symbiotically linked, so it rarely makes sense to keep marketing in a separate silo. This (new) streamlined, integrated work structure (at five) makes sense to me."

A great leader? We can't help but return to this notion. After all, Opie is clearly now on a roll. Unfortunately, from our point of view, she's good at deflecting probing questions of this (unsubtle) variety. She points out rather charmingly, but rather blandly, that she loves her job and would like nothing better than to play a significant part in five's continuing success.

But we do manage to track down another at least willing to play along with our theories. A former colleague concludes: "Yes, I think she's ambitious, or rather has been admitting to herself the full scope of her ambitions. I'm surprised Lighting hasn't moved onwards and upwards by now; and I don't think anyone would be surprised if Opie succeeded her if she did."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 47
Lives: Berkhamsted, Herts
Family: Husband, Julian, and two children, India and Ruan
Most treasured possession: My dad's Cornish rugby shirt
Favourite TV show: At the moment, Californication. My long-standing
favourites are ER, Grey's Anatomy and Grand Designs
Last book you read: The Inheritence of Loss by Kiran Desai
Motto: Nothing ventured, nothing gained